Kate Flynn: Turning leftovers into long-lasting impact

In the United States, more than 133 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is responsible for 33% of total greenhouse gas emissions in Maine, and about 11% of emissions nationwide. 

Kate Flynn, a fourth-year political science student at the University of Maine, was exposed to the extent of food waste across the state and nation during a class project that dealt with nutrition insecurity and the redirection of excess food to where it is needed most. Her project inspired her passion for making a difference in how people can access food. 

“We like to frame it as connecting excess or surplus food to where food is needed because frequently, the phrase ‘food waste’ has a negative connotation. It is ‘wasted food,’ because the majority of food waste is perfectly good and edible food that is falling through the cracks of our food access system,” said Flynn. 

In 2022, Flynn applied for an internship with the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions’ Food Rescue MAINE food waste solutions research program. Flynn’s research focus was developing food waste solutions that would help to feed more Mainers.   

Working with various stakeholders, including the Black Bear Exchange, Sodexo/UMaine Dining, Maine Hunger Dialogue, the Wilson Center, Black Bear Mutual Aid group, UMaine Green Team and other hunger and food waste focused organizations, Flynn launched a community fridge pilot on the UMaine campus. The Black Bear Community Fridge & Pantry officially opened in November 2023.

“We wanted to not just decrease the stigma around asking for help and getting help with food, but also make food more accessible,” Flynn said. “The fridge is meant for everyone. The Black Bear Exchange food pantry also does incredible work for UMaine students and the greater Orono area.”

The Black Bear Exchange is run by the Bodwell Center, an organization whose mission is to create civic mindedness by building an engaged campus through the promotion of service learning and volunteerism. The exchange provides critical food support for the UMaine community and the broader Orono area. The Bodwell Center also runs a program called Black Bear Mentors, where Flynn has volunteered for the past three years. 

Community fridges are not intended to be the single solution that ends food insecurity across the country, Flynn said. Rather, they are meant to bridge the large gap that exists in the food access system. 

“The more you learn about community fridges, the more you wonder why this resource isn’t used more broadly,” said Flynn. 

When describing the process of creating the community fridge, Flynn emphasized the importance of incorporating a variety of perspectives and expertise for such large-scale issues. 

“A huge part of it is this idea that when you have these big problems like food waste or climate change, it really does require an interdisciplinary approach,” she said. “Because I can sit there as a political science major saying ‘This policy, or that legislation,’ but you also need someone who’s an expert on the environmental impacts of climate change and an economist who can measure the data. We need to recognize each field’s role in helping combat the issue, as well as your own weaknesses.”

Flynn’s internship with the Mitchell Center not only allowed her to develop valuable research experience, but also gave her important opportunities to work with the state on issues of climate change and food insecurity. She said her supervisor, Mitchell Center faculty fellow Susanne Lee, and center staff Carol Hamel and Ruth Hallsworth, provided extensive insight and guidance on project management and other workplace skills — knowledge that will prove useful in her future endeavors.   

“There was a lot I didn’t know, and there is a lot that I am still learning. So to work with other people who know a lot more and have specific specialties, that’s how you actually make projects work,” Flynn said. “My supervisor Susanne Lee is quite literally a superhuman with the amount of time she’s able to devote to all of these different projects and initiatives, not just the University of Maine through her work with the Mitchell Center, but also across the state of Maine; she’s involved in so many groups.”

Two weeks into the internship, Flynn was invited to speak at the Maine Hunger Dialogue, which this year focused on tackling food waste and hunger on college campuses. Flynn discussed her work on the community fridge, as well as the issue of food insecurity as a whole. 

“It was this eye opening thing,” said Flynn. “The idea that there was an opportunity on campus where I could do research with food waste and food insecurity, develop and implement real-world solutions and actually work with community food pantries was insane to me. I cannot talk highly enough about the Mitchell Center and all of the resources that they have connected me with.”

Another valuable skill Flynn learned during her internship was how to overcome various obstacles to her efforts. 

“Every new project that I have done has had real challenges,” she said. “Like with the fridge, it was a year in the making, because I hit so many stumbling blocks. Since I was proposing a relatively new and unproven idea, there were many concerns. But it taught me that in life, you will hit a whole bunch of roadblocks. But each time you hit one, you learn from it, you improve from it, and it actually gets you one step closer to success.”

Flynn also worked as an intern with the South Portland Office of Sustainability over the summer. Her responsibilities primarily involved educating city residents about renewable energy. During her internship, Flynn also learned new strategies for decreasing resource consumption across communities. One of these strategies include circular economies, which involve sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible.

“When I learned about circular economies and sharing economies like that, when we are already worried about our resource consumption, communities can share things,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t need to have their own lawn mower if you can rent it out and take turns.” 

Flynn hopes to apply the lessons she learned from her internships and time at UMaine by going into the nonprofit sector and working further to tackle the issue of food waste. 

Story by UMaine News Intern Wes Brinegar